An Essay by Zanita Fenton
A Bittersweet Track to Tenure
I was recently tenured at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit. I am ecstatic at my accomplishment. This achievement culminates years of work and foretells what I hope will be a promising career. Nonetheless, I am also embittered by the hazing rituals involved in joining the tenured club, exacerbated by the additional hoops placed before me by "colleagues," sometimes for obviously race-related motives, sometimes for obviously gender-related motives, sometimes for a combination of reasons related to all aspects of my identity.
I am the first African-American woman, indeed the first woman of color, tenured at Wayne State University Law School. Though I am well acquainted with history, especially racial and gender history, I never imagined that I would be a "first" in the year 2001. I do not mean to single out Wayne State since I am positive there are many other institutions with similar histories. However, I would be remiss in not pointing out my disappointment at the record of an institution in the cultural center of Detroit, a city known for its many contributions in the overall struggle for civil rights.
As I reflect on the occasion of my tenure, I recall the students' quest for progress and equality during my time at Harvard Law School. I remember the urgency that I and my classmates felt in our activist efforts. Participating in the Coalition for Civil Rights, a confederation of student organizations, we sought the symbolic goal of getting the law faculty to hire a woman of color for the first time in its more than 100 years of existence. I say "symbolic" because, though the literal goal was certainly sought, the students were seeking a diverse faculty who could relate to a greater number of the students and who could teach from the bounty of different perspectives. I say "symbolic" also because, though the 1998 appointment of Professor Lani Guinier was marvelous, I hope that the faculty does not view it as an end, but rather the beginning. I also remember that our purpose was for Harvard Law School, the premier institution in the nation and perhaps the world, to serve as a model for excellence in all areas so that other institutions could follow its lead. Most especially I remember being a foot soldier in the activist cause, not a leader as I had been in different times in my life, or through other organizations. I remember attending as many of the rallies and silent protests as I could. I remember admiring the oratory skills of fellow students such as John Bonifaz, Keith Boykin, Charisse Carney, Peter Cicchino, Jodi Grant, Ian Haney-Lopez, Camille Holmes, Lucy Koh, Mark McGoldrick, Spencer Overton, Ronald Sullivan, David Troutt, and countless others. I remember cheering on the Griswold Nine, who staged a sit-in in the dean's office, risking arrest for their beliefs. Finally, I remember that by the time I graduated, Professor Derrick Bell had "officially" left Harvard and our goals had not been met.
I suppose the ultimate connection is that while I was at Harvard, I participated with others in seeking change for an important, broader purpose in my law school and in society. I ended up leading my own cause in a personalized struggle for change, resulting in my own tenure. I never imagined that in any sense I would end up embodying the symbol that I sought in law school. I was inspired by the collective struggle then as I am now. I just wish I could say that the cause were not still so timely.
Zanita Fenton '93 is associate professor of law at Wayne State University Law School.
The Bulletin invites alumni to submit essays that pertain to HLS to be considered for publication. Essays should be about 750 words and may be sent to Lewis Rice, Harvard Law Bulletin, 1581 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138.
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